With the final installment of the wildly popular AMC series Breaking Bad set to begin in just a few short days, enthralled fans everywhere are practically bristling with anticipation.
For those who aren’t yet in the know, the show is based on the travails of an underachieving, obsessive-compulsive New Mexico high-school chemistry teacher by the name of Walter White (played by Brian Cranston). Upon being notified that he suffers from what his doctors suspect to be terminal lung cancer, Mr. White undergoes a protracted personal crisis and subsequent transformation that eventually lands him into the unfortunate but lucrative position of being one of the Southwest’s most notorious manufacturers of methamphetamine.
White’s diagnosis puts him and his family in a financial situation that is likely more familiar to a larger swathe of Americans than we would like to admit; the costs for the kind of treatment that has a chance of reversing the progression of his late-stage disease well exceed his family’s assets. Through a fortuitous series of circumstances, White hooks up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul), a petty local meth cook and addict who differentiates his product from that of his competitors by adding paprika into the mix during the final stages of production. Initially, White is only concerned with making enough money to pay for his treatments.
Through his chemistry know-how that leads to an almost completely pure product, and Pinkman’s street connections, however, the pair go on to make millions upon millions of dollars in the illegal drug trade (far more than required by White’s treatments), in the process attracting the attention of Mexican cartel and Drug Enforcement Administration alike.
The popularity of the show is a testament to creator Vince Gilligan’s skillfully crafted plot-line that expertly ratchets up the suspense to nail-biting proportions, while at the same time subjecting its protagonists to intractable ethical and moral dilemmas.
But the fact that methamphetamine and meth “culture” in all of its iterations, from use and abuse to manufacturing and sales, plays such an indispensable role in the Breaking Bad story is itself remarkable for a number of reasons. It is not so much that methamphetamine is a taboo subject, as most Americans are to some extent familiar with the drug and its exponentially growing popularity in recent decades. Indeed, a number of films such as 2002’s Spun, and television shows such as Intervention, have explored the vagaries brought about by meth addiction from various angles.
Breaking Bad stands out from some of its colleagues, however, in that it suggests, or perhaps reveals connections between the world of dangerous substance abuse and the world of “normal” life, which are too often represented in popular culture as existing in mutually exclusive realms. One of the more salient ways in which the show accomplishes this connection is the way in which it blurs the lines between legal and illegal businesses.
The character of Gustavo Fring (played by the excellent Giancarlo Esposito) is a good illustration of this. Fring is the region’s biggest meth manufacturer who hires Walter White to operate an industrial meth lab. But instead of matching the stereotypical profile of a violent drug-lord, Fring is able to operate so successfully because he is a well-known and highly-respected member of the community, who manipulates this façade in order to mask his illegal activities behind legitimate local businesses, namely a chain of fast-food restaurants and an industrial laundry plant on the outskirts of town (underneath which is concealed a state of the art meth lab). His fateful business relationship with Walter White begins when he offers the ailing chemist a $1 million per month salary for his services.
While the unfathomable situations in which Breaking Bad’s characters find themselves are wildly implausible and exaggerated, the scale on which the show portrays the profitability of the business is more or less in line with the reality. The Office of National Drug Control Policy contends that Americans spend $65 billion each year on illegal drugs (or the equivalent of a month of Federal Reserve bond purchases after the upcoming first phase of tapering), with an estimated $1.5 billion of that going to meth.
But the size and impact of the meth industry cannot be measured in sales alone. One must account for the many other inseparable expenses that come with the business; the US Office of National Drug Control Strategy has a 2013 budget of over $8 billion, and is requesting more than $9 billion for 2014 for its efforts to treat substance abuse.
And of course no discussion about the cost of illicit substances would be complete without a look at the ever-increasing price tag that comes with enforcing drug laws. According to the highly respected non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, prosecuting the so-called “war on drugs” is a $51 billion annual expense in the US alone.
To this must be added the less quantifiable cost of destroyed and/or dysfunctional individuals, families, and communities, as well as the sort of violence that frequently accompanies such a lifestyle.
It is difficult to tell exactly how much of this goes specifically to methamphetamine. While methamphetamine abuse is often presented as a raging epidemic, as of 2011 only 0.2 percent of the population 12 years of age or older were current meth users (some 440,000 souls), double the amount of heroin users, and approximately one-fifth the amount of cocaine users.
[Image: a likeness of Walter White, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons]